Emily Johnson on “Niicugni”

Cameron Wittig

Emily Johnson, “Niicugni”. Photo by Cameron Wittig

I saw Emily Johnson’s The Thank-you Bar in fall 2011 at NYLA. The show began with a walk through the backstage area of the theater, signs mischievously posted along the way with incongruous labels: a white brick wall held one that read “Vaux Swifts nest in this beam.” We entered the stage floor to take one of the 30 seats available in the limited capacity show, sitting either in chairs or cushions on the floor. Our seats, located in the middle of the space, rather than along an edge, meant we were surrounded by the show’s installation, which through its simple construction prevented this immersion from overwhelming. The remainder of the performance—roughly an hour’s worth of interweaving story, music, movement, and light—continued with this intimate yet nimble quality that created a real sense of gentleness that was as soothing as it was powerful.

I left this performance with a strange confusion: I liked it, yet felt as though I shouldn’t like it. I couldn’t deny my positive reaction to the piece, but some part of me thought it might be in bad taste to admit to liking it.

This confusion took a few days to process. The performance was so pleasant, and direct in its presentation, that it was as though the piece violated an aesthetic taboo that put it out of bounds. I had to confront a clash between my felt enjoyment of the work and some nagging thought that the performance was manipulative. Happily, the conflict resolved soon enough: there was a real depth to the work that removed any hesitation I felt. I saw that what I was holding up to mark something as out of bounds needed to be reevaluated. It’s a powerful performance that allows you to see the boundaries of your own aesthetic territory.

Pleasure has become a problematic sensation to deal with and use in art. Some critics and artists have argued that by its very nature pleasure is manipulative, and thus precludes criticality. Things that are pleasurable present themselves as desirable (this connection is readily used in marketing, for example), so how can something that encourages you to desire it allow you to form your own judgement of it? The Thank-you Bar gave me space to consider these questions.

The Thank-you Bar was indeed a lovely piece, speaking directly to the audience with a sincere presentation. There was no aesthetic facade built up between the work’s intention and its audience. When I shared my musings with Johnson, she perceptively reflected back to me:

“Was it really the pleasurable experience, or the sincerity that made you nervous?”

Sincerity can be hard to accept. It’s easy to be caught off guard when presented with a sincere statement or action, because much of socialization and communication is about learning to read signs. In sidestepping how I anticipated a performance to code its meaning, The Thank-you Bar at first felt somehow off. It took some time to process all this—pleasure, sincerity, enjoyment and appreciation—but the more I thought about the performance, the easier the supposed conflict was to dismiss.

I think, in the end, that it was precisely the sincerity, of both Johnson (and her collaborators), and the work itself, that made space for me to accept the difficult aspects of pleasure in the performance. The theoretical problems of pleasure—its relation to the good, whether it is manipulative—were in this instance neutralized through an honest presentation of the sensation. There is no sense of manipulation when all cards are laid bare.

Chris Cameron

Emily Johnson and Aretha Aoki in “Niicugni”. Photo by Chris Cameron

These thoughts, in some form, were the starting point of a conversation Johnson and I had a few weeks ago, before we turned to talking about her newest work Niicugni, having its NYC premiere this week at BAC as part of the PS122 COIL Festival.

“In Niicugni, we’re dancing on a stage floor. But we’re trying at certain moments to think about reaching down into the ground all the way beneath the building that supports and houses us all. Trying to connect the piece to this place. Also spreading out in all directions, and connecting to all the places in this city. And also connecting us to all the places we’re from.”

Niicugni is the second work in what Johnson envisions as a trilogy. Though it was created after The Thank-you Bar, the works don’t necessarily have a chronological order. The way Johnson describes it makes me think of a russian matryoshka doll where, conceptually, “The Thank-you Bar sits inside Niicugni”, rather than preceding it. Ideas of land, location, and identity, central to The Thank-you Bar, are also spoken about regarding Niicugni.

The process for Niicugni began over two years ago, in August 2010 at Vermont Performance Lab. In some important ways, however, the “process” of creating this piece cannot be separated from the performance that happens onstage in various theaters. A central aspect of the work is the fish-skin lanterns that form the majority of the set. These lanterns were handmade by volunteers, created in workshops lead by Johnson in Vermont, Minnesota, and Arizona, as well as by friends and family members in California and Alaska. The 51 lanterns hang throughout the space, over both the stage and and audience, creating both a light and sound installation.

The workshops that helped produced this set are part of the concept of the piece. Producing all 51 lanterns was a painstaking process, and each remains individually identifiable, distinct from every other lantern, and is marked by a unique background. The lanterns are identified on a map (created by Max Wirsing) included in the program that provides a range of information on the origins of each lantern, from the individual(s) who worked to create it, to the type of fish, to the distance traversed by the lantern (starting from the river the fish came from, to where the lantern was made, and the subsequent miles traveled on tour, ending with the current theater). This map locates the lantern in the present, physical theater, and to a web of efforts and places already past.

This important work is part of the ground of Niicugni. Johnson observes, “The actual labor and effort of people who volunteered is now housed in these objects. You can see the stitching, the craft—you can probably see their fingerprints. It’s a different story for everybody. I can recognize who made each lantern.

“The lanterns hold their own story, each one—but I don’t know that it’s necessary to know that. That story can be known and voiced, or be kept with the object. And either one is fine. The story is offered, but not forced.”

This speaks to the many layers that make up Johnson’s work. She notes that she calls her work “performance installation”, as a way to indicate the shared importance of the work’s various elements. Sound, story, light, set, performance—all are integral to the experience. Though this is not an unusual position for a contemporary dance-maker (notions of boundaries between disciplines are decades out of fashion), what is interesting in Niicugni is that Johnson insists on a parity between what might be considered the “preparation” for creating the piece and the live performance that happens onstage. “From the first workshop we had at Vermont Performance Lab over two years ago—that was the show. And so is what we’re doing at BAC this January. They are equal parts.” The intimation is that Niicugni is not only what audiences will see onstage, but was also the labor and the stories that went in to creating the stage performance. Those are not discrete efforts that contributed to some later, final piece, but are part of the work as much as the live performance is a part.

Thinking back to Johnson explaining how, during the performance, they are sometimes thinking about “reaching down” or “spreading out” in attempts to connect to various places, I start to get a sense that Niicugni is a work that extends. It extends the present moment to feature the energy that went into creating it; it extends spaces to bring in the locales of present participants origins; and extends meaning to make use of stories that might not be heard. Referencing the lanterns and the living stories present in each, Johnson suggests that “while it isn’t necessary that the audience knows the story behind each lantern, it’s still important that the lanterns are there.” By way of analogy, she observes, “The ground is below us, whether or not we think about it.”

Circling back again to The Thank-you Bar, we start discussing performance personas and notions of honesty. I suggest that, even as she tells stories, Johnson does not “perform” as a character distinct from her off-stage person, but speaks directly to her audience, as a person speaking to another person (or group of people). She agrees with my perspective, “When I’m performing, I’m not trying to take a position other than ‘me’. And the stories I tell aren’t all ‘true’ (in the sense that they are not all based in ‘fact’), and therefore aren’t all ‘honest’. But they come from an honest place, they come from my experience. It really is just me talking. And dancing, for that matter.”

At this point, laughter starts to trickle in, and Johnson brings out a story in the moment, to illustrate the idea:

“I think it’s really funny that I can kick my leg really high! I think it’s hilarious that that is a thing we do onstage. And I do that onstage, sometimes. And I do it, and I’m laughing at it as I’m doing it, and acknowledging it as a funny thing (for me anyway). And it’s also a very classical thing, and a very strong thing. It’s all of those things, and somehow that is also honest. I’m not doing it to show ‘I can do that’, I’m doing it to offer, ‘Look, I can do this! Isn’t it a funny thing? What can you do?’”

As we wrap up our conversation, another story follows. Johnson muses, “You’ve got me on this ‘honest’ track.”

“Sounds terrible,” I reply.

Here is a snippet of audio of Emily telling a story about “bowling shoes…”: